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Future Cities Canada Summit 2019 – Five Takeaways

Emma Cochrane - November 18, 2019

Jackpine had the opportunity to attend the Future Cities Canada Summit 2019 in Toronto earlier this month. The two-day event brought together city-builders from around the world to discuss open smart cities and community-focused approaches to placemaking.

Gabriella Gomez-Mont, founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, spoke in her keynote about engaging people through provocations, starting conversations with a question. In that spirit, here are five questions raised by the summit that are worth further consideration.

1. How do we connect local knowledge with resources and decision-makers?

An idea that came up in a number of presentations was that communities know what they need and are willing to change, but our current systems aren’t built to empower them.

We heard about organizations like UK-based Power to Change that invest in community businesses to revitalize neighbourhoods. The winners of the Smart Cities Challenge spoke about the importance of building capacity within their communities to drive lasting change. We talked about the collision of new technology with old policies, and how important it will be to consider local voices as we rethink the way we live in cities.

To build better cities (or brands) we need to be great at understanding what’s important to the people closest to them.

2. Are we paying attention to the social infrastructure of our cities?

Gomez-Mont used the term social energies to describe the invisible structure of places. City planning that focuses solely on physical infrastructure and built form misses a huge part of the real experience of the space. She argued that our hope cannot be in technology to transform cities, but must come from people, culture and communities.

She also spoke about the benefits of building robust social connections, and the way groups that come together for one purpose can be activated in unexpected ways. In one example she showed how a strong cyclist community in Mexico City was key to delivering aid after a devastating earthquake in 2017.

The most resilient neighbourhoods and cities are those that are built on strong human connections in addition to well-planned physical systems.

3. What are we missing?

This question came up in a few different ways, but always asking us to take another look at the gaps in our processing and thinking.

In a session on failure, Stephen Huddart of the McConnell Foundation spoke about an initiative he was part of that aimed to raise test scores for students through new arts education programs. The project appeared to be failing spectacularly – with test scores dropping every year – until they took a closer look and realized average scores were dropping because attendance had increased since the introduction of the new program. He urged us to be mindful of the way we measure success, and be aware of what’s missing from the data we collect.

We also talked about missing voices. Who’s not at the table, and what stakeholders have been left out of the conversation? Leon de Vreede, who represented the Smart Cities Challenge from Bridgewater, referred to narrators – who gets to tell the story of change?

In one session about building communities for all, panelists asked to think about what we are hiding in our cities. What are we ignoring right now, because it feels too big to fix or too uncomfortable to talk about? The term brave space was used to describe situations where people are able to not only feel safe, but safe enough to bring up difficult topics.

Whatever challenge we’re trying to solve, understanding the real gaps in our information or conversations is key to developing a real solution.

4. How can we be better partners?

We heard a lot about partnerships and relationships, specifically around governments and professionals engaging groups that have been systematically let down in the past.

Gomez-Mont spoke about working in Mexico City, where a huge diversity of perspectives and mistrust of government made it very difficult to engage people on urban development issues. Activists that were fighting against the policy-makers, she argued, were some of the most important people to collaborate with. Governments need to find ways to work with the people that are most motivated to make change.

A panel on building for everyone focused on working with Indigenous groups and marginalized communities. Aaron Aubin spoke about consultation fatigue, specifically with Indigenous leaders who are asked to provide input, perform land acknowledgements and attend workshops across the country. One project he was part of developed a space where interested parties could come to meet with Indigenous leaders in a place that was convenient and comfortable for them instead of asking them to travel.

The panelists spoke about the importance of actually spending time with the people you are trying to support. It’s not good enough to send a survey out or host a single public consultation. Real insights come from getting to know stakeholders and listening to their stories.

We also heard about the importance of setting expectations. Building trust takes time, and transforming places takes time. It doesn’t always suit the timelines of governments or funding partners who want quick results.

5. Where do we start?

After an inspiring couple of days at Evergreen Brickworks, surrounded by the energy of a room full of community-builders, the return to downtown Toronto was a sharp reminder of the scale of the issues we were discussing. It can be overwhelming to imagine how to transform something as complex as an urban environment. Where do we even begin?

  • Start with a question. We need to understand where we are before we can imagine where we’re going.
  • Start with a big vision and a small experiment. Find ways to test ideas at a small scale while planning for a large one.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. Innovation comes from recognizing what’s not working and adapting your approach.
  • Start with what you have. As Bruce Katz put it, “What’s your edge? Who’s in charge? Where’s your power?”
  • It’s all about people. Make new connections, talk to your network, find collaborators.

Note: While we use the word city often, these takeaways can apply to any size of community.